Hikers Contest Business-Friendly Park Plans

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Hikers sued the National Park Service for a look at its plans for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which they claim have been opened up to too much commercial business.
     The High Sierra Hikers Association has a history of battling the Park Service over the two parks. It claims too many private enterprises known as “packers” are allowed to give guided tours by horse and mule through the wilderness.
     The animals graze in fragile meadows, contaminate streams, erode soil, introduce invasive weeds and cause other harm, the group’s attorney Elisabeth Holmes of Blue River Law in Eugene, Ore., said in an interview.
     The two parks host Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep and other endangered wildlife. They contain groves of giant Sequoia trees, alpine meadows and some of the highest peaks in the United States. They are managed as a single unit and 97 percent of their 865,964 acres are designated as wilderness area.
     The Park Service issued a new Wilderness Stewardship Plan in April 2015. It came in response to a protracted court battle that began in 2009 when the High Sierra Hikers Association claimed the Park Service was violating the 1964 Wilderness Act by allowing commercial activities in the parks without a real management plan.
     In 2012, a federal judge partly agreed with the hikers’ concerns and the Park Service went to work creating a new plan.
     Soon after its release, the Hikers Association filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records on the planning process, particularly provisions on use of horses, mules, burros or llamas. Some of the records they sought dated back to 2004.
     “My client wants to better understand the process and decision making behind it,” attorney Holmes said. “They’re looking for ranger reports, assessments of ecosystems up there, any communication from the large packing companies. They specifically tailored their requests and they are only looking for about 10 years of information.”
     The Park Service had 20 days to reply, but 27 days later it responded that the “unusual request” would take “more than 60 workdays to process,” according to the May 13 complaint.
     The Hikers Association says the Park Service repeatedly asked it to clarify or limit its scope, and provided documents so heavily redacted they were useless.
     “A merry go round is a way to describe how the National Park Service is treating our clients,” Holmes said.
     A Nov. 4, 2015, letter from the Park Service claimed to contain 692 pages of documents, but actually contained none, the complaint states. Finally, the two sides agreed on a completion date of March 21, 2016, but less than an hour before the hikers’ deadline to appeal, the Park Service told it that it would miss its own deadline, according to the complaint.
     After some a bit more back and forth, the hikers say, they stopped hearing from the Park Service at all.
     The hikers say the Park Service violated the FOIA in five ways: failing to provide timely information; failing to comply with and provide a renewed estimated completion date; failing to conduct a reasonably adequate search for records; failing to provide nonexempt public records; and withholding responsive records.
     It wants to see the records, plus costs and legal fees.
     “My clients are entitled to these documents under the law. The request is reasonable and the National Park Service is way overdue in providing the documents,” Holmes said.
     Andrew Muñoz, spokesman for the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service, said the Park Service does not comment on pending litigation.
     The High Sierra Hikers Association is a nonprofit public-benefit organization representing thousands of citizens from 28 states, it says on its website. It provides information issues affecting hikers and the High Sierra, and seeks to improve management practices on federal lands in the Sierra Nevada for the public benefit.

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